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22 mai 2024

The Council of Europe @75


Motto: “If Europe were once united in the sharing of its common inheritance, there would be no limit to its happiness, to the prosperity and glory which its people would enjoy.” Sir Winston Churchill

In the aftermath of WW2, preventing the return of totalitarian regimes and ensuring a lasting peace became a top priority for Europe. The United States, which was giving financial support to Western Europe through the Marshall Plan (the Economic Recovery Act, signed on 3 April 1948 by President Truman, provided 13.3 billion USD to rebuild the continent’s economy), encouraged political cooperation among European democracies.

On 19 September 1946, in a speech at Zurich University, Sir Winston Churchill noted: “Our constant aim must be to build and fortify the strength of United Nations. Under and within that world concept we must recreate the European family in a regional structure called, it may be, the United States of Europe. The first step is to form a Council of Europe.”

On 10 may 1948, in The Hague, the Congress of Europe adopted a political resolution calling for a European Assembly, the drafting of a Charter of Human Rights and the setting up of a Court of Justice responsible for ensuring compliance with the Charter. On 5 May 1949, the Statute of the Council of Europe was signed in London, establishing a new organization for intergovernmental cooperation with the aim to create a common democratic and legal area on the continent, by ensuring respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

CoE played a pioneering global role in developing standards on these three areas, and helped to prevent a repeat of Europe’s violent past. In 75 years, 224 conventions and protocols were adopted on a vast array of topics, from protection of human rights to environment protection, social security, cultural heritage, fighting cybercrime, or prevention of terrorism. A key objective of the Council of Europe is to assist states to meet common European standards through expert monitoring and advisory bodies, such as the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO), or the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission).

Human rights are universal because everyone is born with and possesses the same rights, regardless of where they live, their gender or race, or their religious, cultural or ethnic background. A new generation of human rights is emerging, related to environment protection (the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is judging a case where the applicants claim that forest fires in their country are a direct result of global warming and affect their living conditions), or to artificial intelligence (CoE Artificial Intelligence Convention, currently under negotiation, is intended to be the first legally binding international convention on AI). Human rights implications of the progress in robotics, nanotechnologies or genetics could also appear soon on the horizon. CoE relevance in the future will, therefore, depend on its ability to develop instruments to address new challenges, and on the perseverance to invest in the cooperation and the synergy with other international organizations and non-European countries, in a joint effort to make the planet a place where every person can turn their dreams into reality.

The 4th Summit of the Council of Europe (Reykjavik, 16-17 May 2023) committed “to strengthening the role of the CoE in the evolving European multilateral architecture and in global governance by enhancing its external dimension.”

CoE main partner is the European Union (out of CoE 46 members states, 27 are EU countries while 9 others are candidates to EU accession). In 2024, CoE – EU cooperation includes, inter alia, “strengthening the reform processes in the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership countries, improving dialogue between North and South, fostering solidarity and promoting stability and democratic security in both Europe and its neighboring regions”. After the end of the Cold War, CoE became a “waiting room” for Central and Eastern European countries aspiring to join the EU, as EU accession was also based on recommendations of CoE monitoring bodies and the ECHR caselaw; it could play a similar role in the current EU enlargement process.

Strengthening the dialogue with UN and OSCE is also a priority. Since 1989, the Council of Europe has an observer status to the UN General Assembly (UNGA), and the UN is an ideal global platform for enlarging participation to CoE open conventions. CoE assists European states in the implementation of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and it may offer similar expertise to non-European countries. To ensure a global outreach of its instruments, opening a CoE Liaison Office in New York could be explored, in addition to the Liaison Offices in Geneva and Vienna.

With OSCE, cooperation focuses on the protection of rights of persons belonging to national minorities, promotion of tolerance and non-discrimination, fight against terrorism, and fight against trafficking in human beings. CoE Liaison Offices in Vienna and Warsaw may further contribute to reinforcing the dynamics of this cooperation. A report by the Directorate of Political Affairs and External Relations (“Strengthening the role of the Council of Europe in the evolving European multilateral architecture and in global governance by enhancing its external dimension”, 19 February 2024) suggests the possibility of re-establishing “tripartite meetings” between the UN, the OSCE and the CoE, to hold strategic discussion and exchange on the most important challenges of specific interest to the three organizations.”

Dialogue with the Organization of American States (OAS) has been developed since 2011 (in December 2023, Secretary Generals of the two organizations discussed on the preparation of the Framework Convention on AI and the “Reykjavik Principles for Democracy”). With the International Organization of the Francophonie (OIF), multi-annual Cooperation Programs were adopted since 2009, and OIF promotes CoE instruments to non-European states. Contacts have also been established with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the League of Arab States and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Given Africa’s rising profile on the world stage and its geographical proximity to Europe, a cooperation framework with the African Union may be envisaged, with eventually a CoE Liaison Office in Nairobi, Kenya, where the 4th UN Headquarters in the world (and the only one in the Global South), the UN Habitat and the UN Environment Program are located.

Major global shocks in recent years – the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, geopolitical tensions, conflicts and instability in many parts of the world, the triple planetary crisis (climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss) – all have affected the international system. According to the European Council on Foreign Relations (A crisis of one’s own: The politics of trauma in Europe’s election year, 17 January 2024): “The term “polycrisis” has emerged to suggest crises are taking place more or less concurrently, that the shock of their cumulative interaction is more overwhelming than their sum, and that these different crises share no single cause or one-size-fits-all solution”. In September 2024, the UN Summit of the Future is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to discuss challenges to multilateralism and reinvigorate international cooperation. CoE may use this event to strengthen its influence, international presence and visibility, by joining the picture of those contributing to rebuilding the global trust.

On 4 July 2001, Romano Prodi, then President of European Commission, remarked: “Our real strength lies in unity in diversity”. “Unity in diversity” became the motto of the EU. It can also be the motto of the Council of Europe, because while remaining proud of their own national identities and history, its member states work together to transcend former divisions and promote common universal values. CoE may expand the “unity in diversity” concept, since more than 100 non-European states are parties to CoE open conventions and enlarged partial agreements, or to CoE bodies such as Venice Commission, GRECO, or the North-South Centre.

Not lastly, CoE could rely more on subsidiarity, a structural principle of international human rights law. The correlation between subsidiarity and human rights is apparent even from a basic glance at the first constitutive documents of international human rights law adopted by UNGA: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As Eleanor Roosevelt once noted: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In the world of the individual person: the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seek equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination.”

Finally, how an international organization is perceived depends primarily on its standards, values and areas of activity, but also on the vision of its leadership. Jacques Delors, the legendary President of the European Commission (1985-1995), whose ideas and projects shaped the lives of two generations of Europeans, taught us the importance of endless search for long-term solutions to long-term problems, as opposed to reactive and short-term approach. The Council of Europe @75 may find inspiration in “Delorism” and strive to consolidate its role in Europe and beyond, with commitment, rigor and creativity. A perennial CoE should be visionary, focused on peoples’ expectations, accompanied by a roadmap with target dates, and open to all countries which share its values.

Dr. Ion I. Jinga

Note: The opinions expressed in this article do not bind the official position of the author.

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